As the Premier League campaign winds down, attention will turn to the “buy of the season” debate as Premier League fans argue the merits of, amongst others, Michu, Robin Van Persie, Christian Benteke and Santi Cazorla.
One name almost certain not to come up (and more’s the pity) is that of Tottenham keeper Hugo Lloris, a deadline day buy from Lyon last August.
Goalkeepers aren’t typically thought of as vital purchases. After all, Manchester United and Barcelona both look primed to win their respective leagues with keepers who are good, but not top class. And it wasn’t that long ago that Bayern Munich were one Champions League final defeat to Inter away from doing a treble with a solidly average keeper.
You certainly don’t want a gaffe machine in goal, but typically the goalkeeper will not be the difference in a team’s quest for trophies. Tottenham, however, may be the exception to that rule.
Gareth Bale has obviously been the story this season for Spurs as the Welshman makes his claim to being the Premier League’s finest attacking player. “One man team” allegations have come and gone as Bale has scored countless vital goals for Tottenham. But few have talked about the vital role that Lloris has played in Spurs’ success.
To understand Lloris’s value, we’ll start with a couple of surprising Spurs stats: Tottenham are third in the Premier League in interceptions per game, averaging 18.8. Only Fulham and Southampton average more.
Spurs also concede the fewest shots per game, averaging only 9.7 shots against per match. Spurs are also seventh in the Premier League in tackles per game at 19.6. These stats result from Spurs’ defensive style.
Spurs play an aggressive, pressing style that shrinks the field as much as possible and allows Spurs to retain possession, create shots, and keep the pressure on their opponent. In other words, it’s vintage Andre Villas-Boas football.
It’s also what has allowed Bale to assert himself in such magnificent fashion — he moves with freedom across the attacking three with Aaron Lennon and whoever else Spurs slot in there plus he’s able to receive the ball from either fullback (who are almost wingbacks in AVB’s system) and from Moussa Dembele in midfield.
It makes him impossible to mark. Add to that his pace and strength running in the channels and it’s not hard to see why Bale has been so unstoppable this season. (The only surprising thing is how few people have noted that Bale is basically playing the same role Hulk played for AVB’s Porto and with similarly devastating effect.)
Spurs’ high line
But all that success turns on the pressing, possession, and smaller field. If you expand the field, it becomes harder to give Bale the service he needs and more likely that he’ll become lost in central areas, as he was so often late in the 2011/12 campaign. So Spurs need to play a high line.
But there’s a hitch to the plan — and if you’ve been paying attention to the Premier League for the past two years, you know what it is. When teams press a lot, play an advanced line and try to shrink the field, they can get absolutely destroyed with long balls over the top and through balls that split the defence.
AVB’s Chelsea never found a solution to this problem, which is one of the reasons he was fired.
And just this past weekend we saw QPR beat Southampton with a long ball over the top from Junior Hoilett to Loic Remy and Spurs beat Arsenal twice with defence-splitting through balls that caught Arsenal’s advanced defenders flat-footed.
Strikingly, however, Spurs have seldom been victimised in the same way this season. You can make a highlight reel of last season’s Chelsea being exposed at the back and you can do the same for this year’s Arsenal, but Spurs have seldom been victimised by long balls over the top or through the defence. So what do Spurs have that those other sides don’t? Hugo Lloris.
Lloris – the perfect fit to Spurs’ system
The fleet-footed Lloris is the biggest difference between Tottenham and their London rivals. He’s one of the quickest keepers off his line in the world and he has excellent technique (for a keeper) with the ball at his feet.
In AVB’s system, he essentially plays as a sweeper behind the two central defenders.
So whereas Arsenal and Chelsea have often struggled with the high line because of the enormous gap between keeper and the defensive line, Spurs haven’t struggled as much because having Lloris in goal is almost like having a 12th man to play sweeper between the center halves and the keeper.
If you take Lloris out of the system, Spurs would have to scale back the pressing, be a bit less aggressive with their offside line, and the field would become much larger.
Indeed, when the otherwise excellent Brad Friedel fills in for Lloris, that’s often what Tottenham does. Consequently, Bale is forced to either operate as a conventional left wing, which reduces his goal threat, or he gets lost in the middle of the field, isolated from his teammates, which reduces his overall effectiveness.
This is all to say that while Bale has been sublime, he may not be Spurs’ most important player. And while RVP and Michu have claimed all the headlines, they may not be the season’s best new arrival.
Both those honours may go to Tottenham’s number 1, Hugo Lloris.
(photo credit: yorkvisionphotography via Flickr)